The Pretty Things were unquestionably the finest British group of the 1960s not to have a hit in the United States. Their inexplicable failure to tour the United States, causing them to be overlooked entirely in the tidal wave of British Invasion rock, provides the hook to most stories on the Pretty Things, but is hardly the whole tale. The Pretty Things were frontline pioneers of not just one, but two major styles of British rock, playing blues-R&B-rock with a savage power second to none in the mid-1960s, then taking experimental psychedelia into the stratosphere in the latter part of the decade.
Along the way were a number of mileposts, including the singer [Phil May] with the longest hair bar none among British mid-'60s rockers; the drummer who set the standards for modern rock looniness [Viv Prince], predating even Keith Moon; the creation of the first rock opera [S.F. Sorrow], predating (and probably influencing) the Who's Tommy; and, in 1998, what was likely the first broadcast of a rock opera live on the internet. In the 1960s, no group, American or British, made as much fine music that remains unknown to the mainstream, and almost entirely neglected by rock history books. The band members' explosive personalities and devotion to on-the-edge music making may have ensured that they did not become established stars. Those are the very qualities, however, that have enabled the Pretty Things' cult following to thrive over the last three decades, drawing new generations of listeners and -- as the new millennium begins -- according the Pretties a widespread critical respect denied many more famous bands of their age.
By the end of the 1990s the Pretty Things were more active as a touring band than they'd been for some time, with the same lineup (plus additional guitarist) as 1967: Phil May, lead guitarist Dick Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller, keyboardist John Povey, and drummer Skip Alan. Phil May discussed the group's career at his local pub in London in June 1999.
When the Pretty Things started, you and bands like the Rolling Stones were covering songs by a lot of the same artists, especially Chicago electric blues guys. How were you trying to make your interpretations different?
I actually used Mick's [Jagger's] songbook, with all the lyrics, like a notepad, which had every Chuck Berry, every Bo Diddley, every Jimmy Reed song. Which is great. It was very hard to get the lyrics off of the records. The thing about the Pretty Things was, we found, in people like Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, a kind of kindred music that we could identify with. But we weren't respectful in the fact we didn't copy it. We played it fast because we were 17, 18 years old. So the urgency where we were standing was overlaid on basically songs about being marginalized and being fucked up by society. And that's what was happening to us.
It was just, where we were, where we stood, in society, which being art students, was right on the fringe. We were outside of society. So this music -- we just added some kind of thrash metal to it. We put some urgency into it. And we played it at a speed, which early godfathers of British R&B said "ah, disgraceful!"
You mean people like Alexis Korner?
Yeah. They copied it exactly. For us it was to play it with that kind of...everyone would dance faster, and [at] the pace of our life. But all the people like Korner, they thought we were, you know...it was like, to them it was like a church. You couldn't be disrespectful. It was such bollocks. We loved the music. All the kids that were with us and the Stones, everybody went to Korner's. But it was really every...the harmonica was learned note-for-note. It was bollocks, it was just copying. So we just took what we wanted and made it our own.
Though I and plenty of other people would say that you were even rawer than the Rolling Stones.
I mean, when you say rawer than the Stones, I mean we had even a more irreverent attitude than the Stones did. The Stones almost copied stuff. They did quite a good rendition of the records, slightly faster. But we took that another step and we had to find our own identity in it.
Even though you and the Stones were drawing from a lot of the same sources as far as cover tunes, it seems like you made a deliberate effort not to overlap on the songs you covered, certainly on your records.
No, we were quite conscious of that. All the bands, like Yardbirds, Pretty Things, Stones, were very careful to play different things. You know, it was pointless doing certain things which I would say were classic Rolling Stones songs, [like] "Mona." We did "Pretty Thing," we did "Roadrunner," which neither of the other bands did, and made it our own. When we played "Roadrunner" now, people think we wrote it. We open our set with it, and now I listen to it, it's quite different from Bo's. Again, it's a completely different speed, and it's much more rock. Bo's is quite studied. It's quite nice, but it's quite controlled.
You did a bunch of Bo Diddley songs that weren't too well known, like "She's Fine, She's Mine"...
Also "Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut."
Again, slightly anarchic. It wasn't so formatted. "Keep Your Big Mouth Shut" is just a blow, it's like a jam. You've just got the riff, that's what you've got. There's only one piece to the song. So you have to make it happen musically, instrumentally and vocally.
It was even easier to get wild when Viv Prince joined the band as a drummer right before you started recording, I presume.
We were sort of novice lunatics. But then suddenly they hand us, like, the high priest of lunacy. And we all caught on very fast. In fact, we had to sack him because he was so bad in the end. We couldn't finish a concert. When we sacked him, it was because he refused to play because he'd been in the pub over the road from the gig. The gig's packed out. They wouldn't serve him a beer. And all the people [who] were drinking [were] from the gig. They could drink and he couldn't, [so] he wasn't going to play for them. It's not the kids' fault.
And what he forgot was the night before, he'd gone there with a bunch of musicians and smashed the place up. But he'd forgotten that. So he walked in there and they said, "No, you're not being served." And he said, oh, fuckin' because of my long hair. It was because he'd behaved...they'd trashed the place the night before. But he'd forgotten. He didn't realize where he was.
And this was after he'd already caused a lot of problems by getting thrown off the plane at the end of your 1965 New Zealand tour, before you took off to come back home.
It was difficult, because we came back to England, and we had to get a deppie. We had to get Skip and Mitch Mitchell, 'cause we never knew when Viv was coming back. He went missing for two weeks. He went back 'round New Zealand with a whole bunch of reporters, doing a story on each of the places and how the theater caught fire and how we were arrested for stealing something from a hotel.
It's been overlooked that he was an influence on Keith Moon.
I always remember Keith coming and standing in front of our set, watching the gig, right in front of the drums. And, you know Keith, later, would also say he idolized Viv. Before that, playing drums was quite sedentary. Boring. And through Viv, you'd suddenly realize you could be a drummer, but also an extrovert. You could be a star, and play your drums too. I think Keith realized he could be Keith, and he didn't have to switch instruments. He could still play drums and let out all his lunacy through the drum kit. 'Cause Viv was amazing. He'd hit anything -- mike stand, anything near him, fire bucket, just anything he'd play. Drummed on the floor, on the mike stands, on the guitars themselves.
[He was] impossible in the studio. Also because by the time we got through the final take, he'd be completely gone, you know. He'd have done a bottle of whiskey. But I mean, the first album was recorded in two days, I think. He just got drunker and drunker...well, we all probably did. And we made it through with the session. And that was it -- it was all done in one day. He'd have been terrifying to work with later, when you were spending maybe a day on a song. 'Cause when he turned up, you wouldn't know what state he'd be in, whether he'd be capable of playing or not.
[The mid-1960s Pretty Things single] "Honey I Need" -- nobody could play "Honey I Need." Skip [Alan, Prince's replacement] won't play [it]. 'Cause it's just such a different feel. It's all this background, and playing this fast dance beat. Viv was, reggae, all that stuff was in his head, cross-rhythms. So many drummers I meet said hearing Viv Prince on record was their real turn-on to playing drums. Because drums used to be [jazz rhythm] "sh, sh-sh sh, sh-sh sh, sh-sh sh." But suddenly this guy is playing it like a set of marimbas and kettle drums. Richie Hayward plays like Viv, from Little Feat. He doesn't use snare beat, he'll play the snare beat on the cymbals. Watch him. He's moving around the kit, and whatever drum he's on, he's playing the fours, it's not necessarily the same drum, it's not one of those tie-the arms-together, doing that. He's all around the kit.
Mitch [Mitchell]played a bit like that, especially when he hit the point where he was in the Experience. It was all rolling around the kit. Ginger Baker too, the same thing. But Ginger, Phil Seaman, and Viv came out of the same school, really. Some slight jazz -- there was that thing about jazz, where it wasn't strict. Viv would take a drum solo in the middle of a song. In fact, he always drum soloed. It's amazing.
We had about three Vivs [i.e. drummers] before Viv. One was arrested in Red Square, giving out anti-communist leaflets that did say, ex-member of the Pretty Things. We hardly recognized him. He played with us about two weeks. He did about four gigs with us. I think he counted nails in a factory last time I [had contact with him].
What's Viv Prince up to now? He hardly did any recording after the Pretty Things.
He's got an orange grove in Portugal, and he breeds Alsatians for the Guardia Civil. And he drinks a lot, and makes his own hootch. He goes out fishing occasionally. He rings me at 4 o'clock in the morning to tell me he's going fishing. So I said, fuck off, Viv, it's 4 o'clock in the morning. When he left us, he was on a bottle and a half of whiskey a day. He couldn't play drums. Drinking drummers, their hands go soft. Their heads think it, but their hands can't do it. Skipper sometimes, when he's finished a set, he looks like he's swum the channel five ways. And he's completely soaked, socks, everything.
When you first started to record, what was it like, trying to capture the energy of the state act in the studio?
The guy who actually signed us [Jack Baverstock] was so straight it was untrue. He was the guy who lasted 20 minutes. He thought he was gonna produce the first album. And after 20 minutes, he ran out of the studio and told 'em to get Bobby Graham on the phone, who was a drummer, musician, and said, "I'm not spending another minute with those animals." He said, "They're like animals down there. I've never seen a bunch of people like it. I'm not going to spend another minute in the studio." So they got Bobby in, who knew Viv anyway. And so he kind of understood about music.
There was such mayhem going on. We'd never done a recording. So we were incredibly loud, and the mikes were getting blown up, and the engineers threatening to leave. They said we were very uncooperative. We didn't know what we were meant to be cooperating with, you know. All we did was play. In the end, basically, they did put mikes in front of what we were doing, and we played our stage set. We played what we were doing on stage every night. A couple of other songs, maybe...no, I think they're all there, that we did on the stage.
You did some covers of material that wasn't taken from American R&B writers, but from then-contemporary ones. Who was Johnny Dee? [Dee wrote the Pretty Things' biggest hit, "Don't Bring Me Down."]
Somebody who was this eccentric, wanna-be P.J. Proby. He's American, I think. But he was the second P.J. Proby, who appeared in Denmark in a sort of pink Cadillac convertible with leopard skin seats, and a blonde wife all zipped up in leather. He was like, a little like Buffalo Bill, weird guy. And he swore he was half Indian, Cherokee or something. And he came up with this song, and we listened to it. And it was pretty tame. I mean, we really wrote "Don't Bring Me Down." 'Cause it was really [slowly]..."I'm on my own ch-ch, ch-ch, just born to roam, ch-ch-ch-ch." And we started playing it, and it all happened very quickly. We hijacked it, and made the song.
What was the motivation behind your move from hard R&B-influenced rock to original material that was more in the pop and later psychedelic styles?
We were trying to get differences in. That's why, when we got to Emotions, we brought in harmonies. Because it's like suddenly you find a mellotron. You've never seen one before. You listen to what it sounds like, and it becomes...you bring it on board. We were evolving, from knowing three chords, you're just suddenly able to play six chords, and ten chords. But always lived right at the edge of the wire. We were always beyond our real capabilities. I mean, if we had learned a chord yesterday, we'd start playing it. And fuck it up sometimes, but we'd keep pushing it out.
It was an act of survival too, because the less we kept ourselves interested, we were gonna stop. I mean, it was simple as that. We'd done this two years of hit records and television and playing the same thing every night. And we felt, unless we go somewhere, it was starting to get boring. That's why S.F. Sorrow came on. Because we had to find another way of making records or we would have stopped with boredom. We'd had enough [of] being a pop band. And we wanted to find something which we could get ourselves into, and would just be a different way of recording.
Of those early songs from the mid-1960s, which were your favorites?
I like "Don't Bring Me Down." "Midnight to Six" I quite like. Just purely because it in some ways summed up a whole lot about London at that time.
There was also a soul-influence on some of the cuts around 1965-66, like the "Come See Me" single.
We've always been the sum total of what we've been playing or writing at the time. About every band then got a Hammond organ and three black chick singers, and a saxophone. They were all doing "In the Midnight Hour." The only thing we ever did [as a soul cover] was "First I Look at the Purse."
I can't remember where we got that ["Come See Me"] from. It was very strange. But what we liked about it was Stax's opening bass, which was sort of key to the whole thing. It's out of time -- dum dum dum, boom boom boom boom, bo-owm boom boom. It had a bit of a kind of soul feel to it. But faster, again, more thrash soul. More anarchic soul. It wasn't a cool groove, it was very earthy. We do it on stage now, and it goes down a storm. When we start playing it, for some reason, everybody starts to move. The other songs they listen to, or they do different things to. But this is very easy to move to. It's almost like a Stones thing. We dropped it for years, and we just started doing it again. And every time -- even in television in Germany, with Van Morrison -- we went down a fucking storm. It always picks up whatever they're listening to before. It's just a moving song.
You considered both Mitch Mitchell and Skip Alan as Viv Prince's replacement. Why did you decide to go with Skip?
When we had the choice between Skip and Mitch, we were using them alternatively because they were both working in other things. And Skip was so much more family. Mitch even asked for his own dressing room when he played with us. 'Cause he didn't want to put his suits where we had all our...so really, it's like uh-oh, this guy is very dodgy. Skip was a kind of lunatic, too. He was an embryonic lunatic, and he loved Viv. So for him it was the drum stool he wanted to sit on most, was the Pretty Things' drum stool. He'd done some things with Them, he'd done some things with Donovan, done little bits and pieces. But that was the band he really wanted to play with.
And he lied about his age. Because he told us he was a year older than he was. And on the way to the airport, he had to break down and confess. He wasn't gonna get out of the country, because he was a minor. So he had to get his father up to the airport to sign him out of the country. He told us he was 18, and he couldn't leave the country. And he was trying to bluff it. And halfway to the airport, he confessed. 'Cause they wouldn't have let us out. So he had to then telephone his father to meet us at the airport. And his father had to sign all these forms, saying, "Your son can leave the country." Then I think he got arrested in Berlin, nearly didn't come home again.
Skip was a natural. He wasn't very difficult. But again, he'd been around, and we got to know Skipper before Viv was even...there was gonna be an available seat for him. It's always been the way...we've never auditioned, Pretty Things. We've never held an audition. We were all too much scared. I wouldn't be able to say suddenly, "sorry, you're no good." So it tends to be, we get people we know. And then we don't have to audition, because we know what they're like anyway.
What was the strongest reaction to your live performance, which was pretty wild for the time?
We played something called the Blokker Festival in Holland, which I think was our first trip abroad. The year before, the Beatles had done it, and there'd been some crowd riots. The year we did it, it was absolutely mayhem. Battle charges with the police. They blacked out the second half of it on television, because the church complained about us being immoral -- Viv going up to the camera with whiskey pouring out of his, and licking the lens. That stayed in the psyche of Europe.
It's amazing. People talk about the Blokker Festival now. It was one of those breakthrough moments, you know. I don't think they'd had a festival where they had riots, where it was confrontation between youth and authority. It was like almost the Paris barricades. It's where the Dutch youth eventually said, "We're not going to be controlled. This is our music." And the police started to charge them and keep 'em back from the stage. And they picked up this great sort of poles which were holding this audience back. The audience picked it up, and was smashing it into all these lines of policemen. Blood everywhere. It stayed in the psyche.
When we drove back from Blokker, we got into Amsterdam at night, and people were coming up to the car and shaking our hand. They'd seen the first half on television. The word had got all around Holland, because it was like it kind of...I mean, "This is where we make the stand. We're not going to be kids, and told we can't do this and can't do that anymore." It was a kind of almost, an establishment of the right to have a party, or the right to listen to music, and not let the church control youth. Because in the old days, any problems, they'd just shut down the hall. But for the first time, they couldn't shut it down. The kids beat the police, so the police couldn't control it, like they normally did.
And I think it was, psychologically, quite a breakthrough. '64, 65. The Beatles had done it the year before, and after we did, nobody ever did it again. Just that moment, where authority was challenged, and the force of this movement that was into music was going on, suddenly found its own sense of its power. Normally, the police would charge, that'd be it -- finished. This time, the police charged, and would go back, and the crowd charged. It was terrible. But for once, they were not going to be told, bossed. They broke the code, probably.
In some ways, they were much more liberal, the Dutch, than they were here. But there was still oppression. It's funny to say it now, but if you had long hair in those days -- I can't think of anything in comparison now. You could have a big steel pin through your nose, your lip, you could have your dick out -- you'd have to be that far, to walk into a pub and get the kind of vibe we got. Now, you see anybody walking, and they go [nonchalantly] "pink hair." The bird's got a thing through her lip, or her ear, or showing their...they get served. People will say, "Yeah, what do you want?" It's not like, "Oh my God!"
When you see the early pictures, I guess we looked fairly radical. But nothing to compare...it still doesn't equate, the effect it had on people. When people would attack you, because they were scared of what...to some extent, when you were talking to somebody, there was always a point you'd reach where they were very drunk. And they suddenly thought, "Well, if this guy's right, then all my life, I've been wrong." And that's scary. 'Cause they've got a wife and two children and they were doing a nice job, and yet they kind of found you intelligent, and not stupid. So therefore, it suddenly made them very nervous, that maybe the whole fucking time they've spent, they've been going in the wrong direction. And then they'd take a swing at you. Suddenly this guy who'd been very nice and chatting to [you], said, "Oh, I'm going to tell my mates when I see 'em, you guys aren't stupid, we've seen you on television, you're all right, you're okay." And then another pint, and suddenly [they'd] look at you, and just BOFF! We used to get in a fight every night. Unbelievable. And now when you look at pictures, it doesn't seem that that could have had that effect.
Even as art students, we had the same problem. We weren't served in pubs. So since the age of about 16, I've known what it's like. Hotels wouldn't take you. However much you had, they wouldn't let you in. It was really being ostracized.
The Pretty Things were virtually unknown in the States, and as many people have observed, it seems curious than you never toured there in the '60s.
We were doing very well in Europe, and it was a dumb move by Bryan Morrison. But don't forget, the record we would have gone with ["Don't Bring Me Down"] was banned from all the radio stations within three weeks. It started off being bleeped, and then it got it more and more bleeped. In the end, they wouldn't play it. So we'd have gone there, and a week later we wouldn't have had our record played on the air. It was banned [for the line "laid her on the ground"]. Well, in some places, they were bleeping more than that. In the end, the stations stopped playing it. So we'd have been there with a record which might have been, I suppose...a banned record might have been a good move. But it also might have worked against us. We couldn't be played on the radio.
We were doing very well in Europe, and it seemed like, okay, we'll go with the next record, or the next record. No, he missed an opportunity, Bryan Morrison. But in some ways, it kept the band hungry. It left something to shoot at a bit later on. And if we'd have done it all then, I think we'd have all been dead, and it'd all been over in three or four years. If we'd had gotten to America, and had the same effect in America we were having in Europe, I think we'd be dead, we would have been finished. It would have been too much to take on board. So it left us something to shoot at. When we went back to Led Zeppelin label [in the 1970s] , we started getting a couple of records in the charts. It was great, because it was still fresh, it was still not....to a lot of people, the Pretty Things only started happening in 1975.
Did you use session musicians on your early records, like a lot of British groups did? Sometimes it's been inferred that there were some on the mid-1960s Pretty Things sessions.
The only person, I think, who came in on the second album was Twink. I think he played drums on one track. I can't think even why. 'Cause Skip's on most of it. I don't know...one day, Skip wasn't there, or we were mucking around with something. Twink was there. Again, I mean, Twink was already around before he became the drummer. He just turned up at the session as a friend, and maybe Skip had to go somewhere or do something else. And we wanted to put another track down. So Twink said, I'll play the drums. But no, no session musicians apart from that. Jimmy Page came in when we wrote "You Don't Believe Me" [for the second album]. He came in with Bobby one day, and we were looking for this kind of ballad thing that was slightly out of the grain of normal Pretty Things style. So we just sat down and wrote it with him. It's one of those things that came out.
This is a time when we realized that unless we made a move, we couldn't exist with what we'd been doing. We had to write for ourselves, find our own voice as writers. We couldn't rely on people to bring us material. We wouldn't have survived. We were stuck there at that point. And so to continue, we had to write. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I hate writing. But if we wrote the songs, it would be even our music, so it would be more an expression of what we felt at the time. There are very tentative steps in some of [the third LP] Emotions, and some positive points. And then, because we'd already lined up the whole thing with the EMI, and we already had in our heads S.F. Sorrow, the idea was forming.
Was it a disappointment to you that a lot of the cuts on Emotions were overdubbed with strings?
When they started fucking around with Emotions, putting orchestras on it, we could have said okay, cancel the whole album and we'll start again. But that would have meant another six months under contract. So it was more just okay, we're out of here now, we've finished our three records. And we knew we could never have done S.F. Sorrow with Phonogram, Fontana. There was nobody there...it wouldn't have understood...we had enough trouble at EMI, which was a bit more adventurous. And the only reason EMI [recorded us], because of Norman Smith. If there wouldn't have been Norman Smith, the [Pink] Floyd wouldn't have existed...well, they wouldn't have been able to sort of develop what they were trying to do. There was nobody with the ears Norman had.
How do you think Emotions might have sounded differently, if you'd had complete control?
If we'd been allowed to finish it our way, I don't know...I would have to wait and see what it sounded like when we finished it. I mean, a lot of the ideas were quite interesting, and then just got swamped. It didn't get finished, so to me, it was an unfinished album. It was something we were working on that got hijacked.
Some of the tracks show up in stringless versions on the CD reissue.
I think Mark [manager Mark St. John] actually used some of the demos of the songs, so they're just done with one mike, a couple of mikes. They're not -- I think some of them are the tracks with the orchestra removed. But on a lot of it, you couldn't do that, because there's too much orchestra over everything, so you can't take everything out. But I think some of them are just demos of songs. But that would have been developed.
This was around the time you changed personnel, with [rhythm guitarist] Brian Pendleton and [bassist] John Stax leaving.
Pendleton had gone missing. He came and played with us a year or so ago, came and did "Rosalyn" with us. He just got off a train. We were going to a gig in Leeds or something, and when we got to the other end, he wasn't on the train anymore. We never saw him again for about a year-and-a-half. He snapped. His marriage had gone. Well, not gone, but he was under a lot of pressure, and he just lost it.
He was working in a bank when we found him. Then he went to working in a bank again. I think he just found the Pretty Things too much. I mean, the whole life...I think he just couldn't hack it.
Then there were a couple of singles in 1967-68 that definitely went into full psychedelic music.
It's a search, really, for a direction. Something that can carry the band into the next bit, where we controlled all the elements, and where it had a complete shape. I could never understand why an album had to be five A-sides, five B-sides. It seemed like a collection. [S.F. Sorrow's] a 40-minute piece. It's meant to grow, and it's quiet bits and faster bits. When you listen to classical records, you'd start at the beginning, and you went through a whole experience. There were real fast bits and mellow bits and you had a whole emotional kind of journey. And I couldn't understand why an album couldn't be seen like a...and then we did [the 1967 single] "Defecting Grey," which is a small maquette of S.F. Sorrow, basically. Something which became different elements, but was the same story.
What was the story of "Defecting Grey," then?
That's about somebody who -- in those days, we used to call it "Grey" -- somebody, like, who does a job. Grey suit, really. And this was somebody, like the people we've met, who suddenly realized that everything they'd lived for, and were brought up to believe in, possibly wasn't right. And this guy was actually going from being very straight...he was becoming homosexual, or his homosexual side was coming out. But of course on the record, nobody picks that up. But it's "sitting alone on a bench with you...the brush of your hand...chasing shadows away" -- that's the story. But it didn't matter what people knew about it. It was our idea that made us make the music. 'Cause we knew what we were doing, what the storyline was. And the same with S.F. Sorrow. Once I'd written the story, we suddenly had something to work from. We had like 14 months to make this picture up.
The Pretty Things have praised producer Norman Smith's work with them during this period very highly. That's interesting, because he was working with Pink Floyd on their first albums, and they've been very critical of Smith. Do you have any idea why that is?
It was hard [working with Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd]. But with Roger [Waters], he was such an egoist. I mean, the minute he could get rid of anybody who was doing anything in the Floyd, he would. I mean, Roger wanted the Floyd for himself. And he was a very powerful bloke. I've got a lot of respect for Roger, he did some great things. But it was control. And Norman wasn't part of that scenario.
What were the major contributions of Norman Smith to your records?
Initially we were given the money with this suit who controlled how we spent it, and made sure we just didn't take drugs and sit in the studio all night and do fuck-all. So Norman was like a policeman for the Floyd to start with. But with us, the great thing with Norman was, he spent as much time on the studio floor with one of us in the box as he spent in the box. He would work with us, and he'd be doing the fourth harmony, or he'd have this idea for a drum motif. And he'd get up a boy's brigade drum and be playing that. 'Cause he knew -- it's easier than teaching somebody else to do it. He'd say try this, and we'll put it on the track. He was still slightly the producer, but it was breaking down. Norman realized the best way to work with the Pretty Things was to be on the floor. And then we would come in with an idea, not songs, and we'd all work out, on the floor. And it was kind of written in studio two [of Abbey Road]. There were no demos...a few songs [when S.F. Sorrow began]. "She Said Good Morning" was kind of barely written. A lot of the other things, "Journey" and things, were just a small idea.
He decided that the best way to work with us, was to break down that job definition. And we were all making an album. And sometimes, [for] 24 hours. Sometimes we didn't go home for a couple days. But we were so into what we were doing, we didn't want to be anywhere else (laughs). It was an incredible feeling. We felt we were doing something quite special.
You've said that "Defecting Grey" was originally much longer. Was it Norman who cut it down to a much shorter length for the single?
No, 'cause "Defecting Grey" was completely made before Norman even heard it. No, we concocted that in a demo studio, to take to EMI, to show them what we wanted to try and do. And Norman was sent with the job of cutting it down, to make eight and a half minutes down to three or four minutes. We spent a couple days, and Norman went back to the heads of EMI and said, you can't cut this. It's something that grows and develops, and you can't bits out of it. Otherwise you'll end up with a normal single. Nothing lasts for more than a minute and a half.
I've always wondered: what's that sound that opens "Defecting Grey," that huge booming low heartbeat sound?
That's dropping the guitar on the floor. It's like an acoustic. We just let it fall beside the mike.
There's quite a change in your voice from, say, '65-early '66 to the psychedelic things you were doing a couple of years later. It's much raspier on the earlier things, and more suited to harmony vocals on the later ones. Was that a deliberate shift?
As we wrote stuff, I had to sing...it's like an actor. I was taking on different kinds of parts. The thing of being very two-dimensional, the blues and rock things. Wasn't a lot of movement, you had quiet or you had quite hard. Now there was a completely different -- "I've written a song which couldn't be sung that way." It had to be sung in a way we tried to learn how to sing. My voice was changing to suit the material we were turning out.
You couldn't put a harmony against a lead line that wasn't in tune. It's like, if one of us is doing something, we can be slightly off. But if all four of us are gonna do it together, if you're off, the other three of us ain't gonna work together. It's gonna be discordant. So suddenly, you have to start being more precise.
Were there any records influencing you when you wrote S.F. Sorrow? Some people have said that the British psychedelic band Nirvana's record The Story of Simon Simopath was a similar, earlier concept album, although I wouldn't agree with that myself.
[The famous Seattle Nirvana is] a band which I love -- one of my favorite bands of the last ten years. [As for the British 1960s Nirvana] I've never even heard of them. I didn't think there was another Nirvana. If you played me something, I wouldn't know it was by them. But I think I know the name.
The only thing I was influenced by was classical opera. I thought it was a great idea to have a story. There seemed no reason that the music we were writing was not for a whole 40-minute [piece]. That was, to me, the difference in the five A-side, five B-side album. My only influence in terms of where I was looking for comparisons was in opera, where it starts off and they fall in love and she dies. I thought, great. All the bits and pieces in that song, that they can all be about one person's life.
And I'd written this short story called "Cutting Up Sergeant Time," which was all based loosely about somebody in the first world war, in the trenches. And I developed the story, and started to where he was born and what would have happened to him on the way. And the whole thing developed. I just wrote the story, and it set us up for the next song. Because we'd looked at the story and said, okay, we've got to now make some musical statement here, because of this change. Now he's no longer S.F. Sorrow, he's private sorrow. So he has to be a song, because now he's joined the army. It was very easy then to pick moments [that comprised the story]. It was very exciting working.
Although as this was long before CDs, you couldn't present it as 40 continuous minutes; it had to be divided into two LP sides.
I think in some ways it sort of -- it's almost like an interval. Because it comes down nicely to the end. And then you start again. It's a bit like you have to have an interval in opera. We knew we could be on disc, so there'd have to be a break. So we felt, that at that point [the end of side one], it was a point to stop and rest, like you would have to in the theater. But I agree with you, when you have it going right all the way through, like [when] we did it live on the internet, it was great, because [it] was just like a train, you didn't have to stop anymore. And also, you've got the build in the middle, and you've got control more of the highs and lows. Because it wasn't going to stop until the very last chords of "Loneliest Person."
And you were able to have a narrator when you did it on the internet [in 1998], Arthur Brown.
Was it a big advantage being able to record at Abbey Road for EMI, with some of the best facilities in the country at that time?
It was very low royalties. We worked out, we'd have to sell sort of three million copies of S.F. Sorrow to pay our advance back before we earn any more money out of it. They gave us freedom. The reason we went to EMI was not that they offered the best money -- that they offered the best experimental situation.
We wanted to work at Abbey Road. When we met Norman and went up to Abbey Road, it was like a fait accompli. We just felt we'd found home. It was our home for the next...quite a while. We practically lived there. We had unlimited studio time. Which for us, at the time, was better than money. We'd go through to six o'clock the next day. I mean, till the engineers, till the technical people couldn't stand up anymore. That's the only reason it stopped. Because we had drugs, we could have gone, we'd do three days on what we were on. So we had no problem. But the guys who did nine-to-five, they stayed with us all night. They should have gone at like seven, eight o'clock at night, and they stayed, because they were building some machine for Dick's guitar. They became tightly involved in it.
It was wonderful. It was a whole group of boffins, we called them, who had the workshop upstairs. They were always wheeling in these converted tea trolleys with sort of early synthesizers, valves sticking out, bits of wire. Get Dick to plug his guitar amp in there, and they'd turn it up and he'd play. I t would blow up. So we'd leave that guitar track, and go on to something else, and then another hour or two later [the staff] came down. "Now it's alright, we got it now." I'm like, "fantastic." And they stayed with us, they'd go home three or four in the morning. So when the engineer got too tired to hear...I mean, in the end, your ears go. And he'd just say, "I can't do anymore." And then the session would stop. We'd go on for 18 hours no problem.
What was nice was we did the Internet
back in [studio] two again, where we made S.F. Sorrow.
it was really strange, going back in there again. It's changed a
lot. Not in the studio, but all the public areas are
just completely all polished wood, smart bar restaurant. But the
vibe, it was really weird walking in. So much stuff came rushing
back. The Beatles putting their head round the door every time
came in. They started work later than us, and they'd always stick
their head round the door. They were really nice. We'd all
meet up in the canteen, there was only one canteen where everybody
And it was a feeling that there were three albums going on, and
really working. I'd never worked as hard in my life.
you know, we didn't want to be doing anything else.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO OF THE PHIL MAY INTERVIEW
HOME WHAT'S NEW MUSIC BOOKS MUSIC REVIEWS TRAVEL BOOKS
LINKS ABOUT THE AUTHOR SITE MAP EMAIL RICHIE BUY BOOKS